In 1967, American poet Larry Beckett wrote an elegiac poem titled “Song to the Siren.” He was inspired by Homer and stories of ancient sirens (ocean nymphs) tempting sailors lost at sea.
Beckett gave the poem to his writing partner, folksinger Tim Buckley. “Tim was eating breakfast when I dropped off the lyric,” Beckett said. “He glanced at it, pushed it aside, finished eating and reached for his guitar… Then he started singing… He had this incredible gift for matching melody to language.”
Buckley composed a dreamy ballad calling to my mind lost love. He was friends with Micky Dolenz of The Monkees. Dolenz convinced Buckley to play the song in a 1967 Monkees episode. Buckley was dissatisfied with the song. “Tim believed the song was flawed,” Beckett said, “even though he agreed it was the best song he ever wrote.”
Buckley retired the song and refused to play it at live shows. He may have been influenced by Judy Henske, girlfriend of his producer Jerry Yester. She made fun of the lyric “I’m as puzzled as the oyster.” Buckley changed the “oyster” lyric to “I’m as puzzled as the new-born child.” Beckett defended the original lyric. “A pearl is an object of great beauty caused by a grain of sand getting inside the oyster’s shell, which seemed apposite to me, what with the sea imagery and the sailor and siren confronting each other. Will beauty or pain rule all?”
While waiting for Buckley to compile songs for a new album, Yester produced a Pat Boone record called Departure. He asked Boone to record “Song to the Siren.” This is how one of the great rock songs of all time was initially recorded by a musical milquetoast. Boone’s version was a travesty with an absurd oompah band and an opening ad lib, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” Boone clearly didn’t understand the lyrics.
Buckley must’ve been mortified. He released his own version of “Song to the Siren” a year later on his album Starsailor. This new take relied on reverb-filled instrumentation making it dreamier than the original folk version. Buckley called it “a love song to a hallucination.” Tim Buckley died in 1975 at 28 of an accidental heroin overdose.
In 1983, “Song to the Siren” was given new life. Music impresario Ivo-Watts Russell wanted to assemble an all-star band from his 4AD record label. He selected Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry from Dead Can Dance and Gordon Sharp from Cindytalk. The band was called This Mortal Coil and they chose a medley of two Modern English songs “Sixteen Days” and “Gathering Dust” for their first single.
Russell needed a B-Side for the single. He opted for “Song to the Siren” with Fraser singing vocals and Guthrie playing celestial guitar. Fraser’s version is haunting and ethereal like a fervent prayer. She later told The Guardian that goes “to a place where I cannot be touched” when singing the song. She sounds like a siren herself, beckoning lovers at sea to a premature death. Fourteen years later Fraser had a brief relationship with Jeff Buckley (son of Tim Buckley) just before Buckley drowned in 1997.
This Mortal Coil’s version of “Song to the Siren” earned a reputation as music to make babies to. It’s romantic, sensual and otherworldly. Director David Lynch calls the song his favorite piece of music. Lynch wanted to use the song for the opening school prom scene in Blue Velvet but he couldn’t afford the licensing fee. He finally used the song 11 years later in Lost Highway.
In 1985 when Sinead O’Connor was 17, her mother died in a car accident. O’Connor was devastated. Around that time, she heard This Mortal Coil’s version of “Song to the Siren” for the first time. “That’s how I got through my mother’s death,” O’Connor said. “Lying on the floor curled up in a ball, listening to Song to the Siren nearly all day, every day, just bawling… I still can’t move a muscle when I hear it sung.” O’Connor herself covered the song beautifully in 2009.
British singer/songwriter David Gray also covered the song. “It’s beautifully simple with fantastic metaphorical lyrics and an exquisite sadness that makes you shiver,” Gray said. “Buckley got so close to the edge of a loneliness and yearning that’s almost uncomfortable and stops you in your tracks, whereas Fraser’s version floats in your ears and washes over you, like the sea that’s constantly represented. Each time I hear either version, I’m transported somewhere else, outside of myself.”
Other artists who covered the song include Bryan Ferry, Robert Plant, George Michael, John Frusciante, Sheila Chandra and British band Wolf Alice.
O’Connor always felt “there was a prophecy of death in that song.” The last verse ends:
I’m as riddled as the tide
Should I stand amid the breakers
Or should I lie with death, my bride?
Tim Buckley tried to turn the siren’s seduction on its head and suggest that the tempted sailor might survive the siren’s call. He and Beckett added a final verse to the song:
Hear me sing, ‘Swim to me
Swim to me; let me enfold you
Here I am, here I am
Waiting to hold you.’
Buckley didn’t live to see his song become a classic.